Interview: David Marley

Dr. David Marley is a longtime Jungle Cruise enthusiast and  lecturer for the Honors Program at California State University, Fullerton. Once a skipper himself, Marley now teaches a wildly entertaining selection of history classes by day. By night, he hosts the Skipper Show, a comedy lineup run by current and previous Jungle Cruise skippers. He also sells handmade, Jungle Cruise-inspired tikis and merchandise at his Etsy shop, Dr. Skipper’s Jungle Hut.

His latest works, Skipper Stories: True Tales of Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise and The Jungle Cruise: A Skipper’s Eye View Of Walt’s Wildest Ride showcase the best pranks, interviews, and historical facts of one of Disneyland’s most famous attractions. A few of his books are currently available for purchase on Amazon.

The Books

How did you find inspiration for your latest books, Skipper Stories and The Jungle Cruise?

I’ve been fascinated with the Jungle Cruise since I was seven and working there only made it worse.  I’ve been working on a coffee table book about the Jungle Cruise and waiting for Disney to look at it.  In the meantime I was approached by Theme Park Press about doing a book on the Jungle Cruise–that is, interviews of skippers.  They wanted to have each chapter be about a single decade written by single skipper.  Because I worked there I knew that every skipper has stories, so we should include everybody.  With that idea, the book Skipper Stories was born.

How did you go about finding sources for Skipper Stories and The Jungle Cruise?

Almost all of my friends are Jungle Cruise skippers so it wasn’t hard to find people.  Every time we hang out, almost all we do is tell stories about our years working at the park.  I also went on Facebook to a couple of alumni groups, and this very active skippers Facebook page.  Once the word got out I had more people coming to me than I had time to interview.


Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise

You’ve mentioned that a sequel to Skipper Stories is already in the works. What can you tell us about that?

It looks right now that there might be as many as two more books in the series.  The next one is probably going to focus exclusively on the Florida Jungle Cruise, and the third one we’ll have skippers from all around the world.  In doing my interviews I was able find some skippers from Japan so I’m excited to include their stories.

As a Professor

You’re very good at using humor to get your information across to your students. What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I love being in the classroom with students.   Writing books is fun and researching is fun, but nothing compares to being in front of a room full of young people who are want to learn.   There are days when I come to campus and I’m in a bad mood, and as soon as I walk into a classroom it just vanishes.  I also love hearing from former students about their post-college lives.  It’s kind of like having lots and lots of kids.

You’re an expert on both Disneyland and American history.  How are those things related? Do they ever interact?

Oh yes, they really do.  I think that Walt Disney is the most influential nonpolitical American of the 20th Century.   I’m continually amazed at how much that single man impacted our culture.  He’s been gone for more than fifty years now, and his influence only seems to spread.  As a historian my focus is modern American history, and I’ve written on events like the Civil Rights Movement and the Christian Right movement, but writing about Disneyland give me a particular joy.  Everybody loves Disneyland, and the worst person in the history of that park was just a guy who was trying to make the park profitable, so it’s nice to tell a story that really doesn’t have any major villains in it.

What do you find most fascinating about history?

I consider myself a storyteller, so I love that history is nothing but lots of interesting stories.   Besides that I really love the fact that history is incredibly deep.  You can spend twenty or thirty years studying a topic and there’s still so much more for you learn.  I mean, I’ve just published a book about the Jungle Cruise and all I can think about is all of the stuff that I still don’t know about that place.  So it’s never boring.

You’ve written about a number of works outside of your books about Disneyland. Can you describe a few of those for us?

My first book was a biography of Pat Robertson, the Christian Right leader.  He was also the topic of my dissertation.  It was fun to write a biography because it has a nice, natural narrative flow to it.  I’ve also written the chapter for a book on the Civil Rights Movement.  My few journal articles were all about the Christian Right.  It was an interesting topic to write about, but I found it personally very frustrating since their politics are so hostile to my own.  Skipper Stories is my second real book

As a Comedian

How do you go about writing new routines for standup?

I really pursued standup comedy for about ten years and it’s a lot more work than most people realize.  A good comedian writes material every single day.  There is this rule the comics call the rule of nines, and that is for every ten jokes you write, nine will be awful.  That is pretty much true.   So I keep a notebook around with me so I can write down ideas.  There is also a specific way that jokes are formatted, and once you learn how that is done, it makes the process a bit easier.

If you’re a musician and you write a great song, people want to hear it forever.  Just look at Paul McCartney, he’s performing songs he wrote when he was 16.  That is amazing.  If a comic writes a great joke the response is “That was funny, now I never want to hear it again.”

What is your favorite joke?

Most of the jokes that I personally find funny, no one else does.  I found that the curse of doing standup comedy is that you become so analytical about it and so hypercritical that it’s difficult to find things that you think are genuinely amusing.  Some of the most popular jokes in my routine are jokes that I don’t think are that brilliant, but people love them, so I keep doing them.  That is part of the art of being a standup comic, telling jokes and laughing at material you no longer find amusing.
Favorite joke?  I don’t think I have one, I can’t think of one.  Some of my own favorite jokes require a set up that doesn’t work if I say, “Here is a joke.”   I like jokes that don’t appear to be jokes until you hear the punch line.


Skipper Show is Dr. Marley’s Jungle Cruise-themed comedy lineup

Many comedians see humor as having a variety of uses, aside from just being funny. What do you use humor for?

If you look at The Daily Show or John Oliver or Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, it’s pretty clear the comics are the only ones that can really speak the truth to power.  Comics can get away with saying things that others cannot.  You can point out racism, evil, and just generally horrible things, and people don’t get threatened by it, because you are doing it in a funny way.  It’s a good way to change people’s perspectives.

I use comedy to feel people out.  I worked with this boss that only laughed at her own jokes, and when anyone else would crack a joke, she would frown.  So for fun I tried to crack a lot of jokes every time I had an interaction with her.  I never found anything that made her laugh, and the more people around her laughed at what I said, the madder she would get.  It was very odd.

To be honest, I think many comics use comedy to mask their true feelings.  I like to use it to keep human emotions at bay.

How did working at the Jungle Cruise prepare you for stand-up comedy?

The answer to this is in the book Skipper Stories, but being a skipper is the best preparation possible for being a stand up comic, or a public speaker of any kind.   As a comic, you have to work really hard and drive really far to get up on stage four or five times a week.  At Jungle Cruise you’d have twenty or more groups in an eight-hour shift.  So you got lots of stage time with wildly different audiences, which teaches you to be quick to adapt to the audience that you have.  You quickly learn how to be funny in any situation.  When I started the Skipper Show I created a booklet that teaches Skippers about what the Jungle had already taught them about comedy.

How is stand-up comedy different from working at the Jungle Cruise?

At Jungle the audience has other things to look at; in stand up, it’s only you.  At Jungle, people get on the boat not always knowing it’s a comedy act, whereas in stand up, people are there to hear comedy, which can make it more challenging since their expectations are higher.  In my career I’ve never had a heckler because Jungle taught me how to deal with them quickly.   Obviously in standup you’re much more free to talk about whatever you want to.  The other main difference is that at Jungle you can do the same routine and make minor adjustments, whereas in standup you have to constantly be creating new material.

As a Skipper

What made you want to become a Jungle Cruise skipper?

This story is also in the book.  I was seven, and my sister took me to Disneyland, and all I remember is talking with a skipper and telling myself that one day I would work there.   It became my goal from that moment.

What is it about the Jungle Cruise that has made the biggest impression for you?

The biggest thing was the camaraderie.  I’ve made lifelong friends from my time there.  The Jungle is a unique bonding experience because you are all trying to entertain people, not just push buttons on a ride.  We would all leave work together and park near each other, and hang out and drink together.  It was like being in a fraternity.  You realized it wasn’t just you at work, you were part of a team trying to make magic.

The other impression was that working at Jungle Cruise was as cool as I always hoped it would be.  Other parts of working at Disneyland could drive you crazy, but the Jungle was always home.  No matter what else was going on, I’d step on the dock and feel pure bliss.  I’d leave work everyday knowing that I had made people’s days better, and that was a great feeling.

My wife calls the Jungle Cruise my mistress, and I guess that’s true.  I run a stand up comedy show based on the Jungle, and a successful Etsy store that is mostly items inspired by the Jungle.  So add the Skipper Stories book to that and you can see that I’m a man of very limited interests.

It seems like every section of Disneyland has its own personality. What is the Jungle Cruise like?

Skippers are a very different breed.   All they do is crack jokes all day on a boat with little to no supervision, so you have to be brave and wild.  A manager at another part of the park called skippers “The Frat Boys” and that is pretty accurate.  Skippers tend to be loud, silly, and a bit cocky about their status.  In the book my friend, Joey Hurley, said it best: “The west side had pirates and swashbuckling adventures and wildness. The east side had attractions that ran on time. They had spaceships and they tucked their shirts in and new they had a job to do and had to be efficient. On the west side it was all about leaning on things and having a good day.”  Now take that idea and amplify it and you have the Jungle Cruise.  Skippers are often more focused on having a good time then getting the job done efficiently.

Your book, Skipper Stories, is about forty years’ worth of Jungle Cruise pranks. Do you think that the general personality of the Jungle Cruise community has changed or stayed the same over time?

Sixty years!  The Jungle Cruise is a Walt Disney original.   It has changed in many ways.  While people think the attraction is the same as it always has been, it has undergone huge changes in the animals and scenes.  Skippers have changed too.  While they were always funny people who loved to entertain, in the 1970s it became a wild place, and stayed that way until the mid 2000s when management was finally at least partially successful in clamping that down a bit.  It also changed because only men were allowed to work there until 1995, so it still has a very male-oriented culture.  From what I can the current Skippers, while very funny, don’t seem as willing to break the rules as earlier generations were.  Perhaps my book will change that.


What are your favorite Disneyland or Jungle Cruise experiences? Share your thought below.

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